Reporter's Note: President Barack Obama spoke last week on the importance of fathers in society, even though he was raised by his mother and grandparents. He has also asked for input from Americans on how to operate his White House, so one father to another, I continue with my daily letters.
Tom Foreman | Bio
Dear Mr. President,
This is the first Fathers Day in my life that I have had no need to buy a card or gift, which is to say, the first since my own dad passed away. I knew that I would be thinking about him a lot, but I have been unprepared for how much he has been on my mind. Sometimes I will see a picture of him on an end table, or have a conversation about him, or run across a keepsake like his old pocket knife, and memories will rise like a covey of quail. More often, however, I will see something, or read something, or hear something quite normal and think, “I should call and tell Pop about that. He’ll find it interesting.” Then I catch myself and remember that we’ve had our last call.
Anyway, I hope you don’t mind if I use my letter today to tell you a little about him.
The basics are easy: Grew up poor in a big family on the south side of Chicago. Left for the Army when he was little more than a boy, and ended up with a career in the Air Force. Korea, Guam, Alaska, Morocco. Other places too. Married a southern girl, had a baby that died. Then had three more children. I was the last. Retired from the military to be many things: a state park ranger, a postman, a minister for a small country church founded by my grandfather on my mother’s side. Died of cancer last year.
Beyond the basics, however, as it is with more people, is where the real story lies.
My father was a very smart man; intuitive, curious, and interested in almost everything. When I was a kid I read the encyclopedia set over and over again (I was particularly fond of the A and the S volumes,) and while others thought it peculiar, he understood. While not indulgent, he was patient and helpful whenever a new interest arose. I joined 4H, and we built a sheep pen. I took up magic, and he drove me to monthly meetings of the Decatur Demons Club (Chapter 14 of the International Brotherhood of Magicians!) I grew interested in the circus, and he calmly helped me string a rusty old steel cable pulled out of a barn twelve feet in the air between two sugar pines to practice high wire walking from dawn ‘til dusk.
He was funny. Good at voices, telling jokes. After dinner, with the family still around the table, I would prod him to tell stories of growing up poor on the south side of Chicago, and he would launch into tales full of adventure, gangsters, history, and humor. One of my favorite memories is a bit he did about how cold he used to get on guard duty in Korea; he came up with it while he was in the final stages of dying, and made me laugh out loud, even as I marveled at his bravery, and decency, and tenacity in going for the laugh even while he was going forever.
He took our whole family to church every Sunday without fail. He played hockey, basketball, and football with us long after the other fathers had given up on such things. A snowfall was a guarantee of a good snowball fight.
He was rarity: An honest man and he admired honesty in others. He liked real leaders, but had no patience for politicians in either party. Although he voted routinely, he loved to say “Don’t vote. It only encourages them.”
He worked hard and taught all three of us kids to do the same.
I’m sure I’ve written too much about him already, and I could go on and on, so I should get to the point. I think what made my father great for me, and what makes any person great for that matter, is not whether they are remembered or honored or celebrated by name in the years after they pass; but instead, whether the principles they demonstrated in their own lives, the causes they fought for, were truly focused on making the world a better place; and whether those initiatives took root deeply enough among the family members and friends who remain, to see the good work go on even when the name is forgotten. The great father is the one whose positive influence remains long after he is gone.
I’m sure that you, as President, want to be remembered fondly and well for your accomplishments, whatever they may be. But if I can pass on any advice from my father it would be this: Forget yourself. Remember that you, for all the fame today, will be utterly forgotten soon enough. We all will. Even the Founding Fathers of our nation are, for most of us, little more than names in history books and pictures on our currency.
But their ideas live on; great ideas, great effort, great goodness live on in the family of man, the offspring of us all.
When I see something that reminds me of my father, it makes me feel sad that he is dead. When others see something of my father’s great goodness in me, even if they know not from where it came, I know he is living still.
Call if you can, but not today. Let’s be with our families.
Find more of the Foreman Letters, here.
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